Wallace Stegner, Where Have You Been All My Life?

There are always those writers whom we are “supposed” to read. You know what I’m talking about: The Dickenses, Allendes, Steinbecks, Shakespeares, and Woolfs. You could go on and on, I’m sure.

Picture this, and see if it sounds familiar: you are sitting in a coffee shop with an editor or your agent, or another writer friend, and the conversation naturally turns to what you are reading. Your friend says she is reading the new Eggers novel and she pauses to say, “You have read Eggers, haven’t you?” And then, in that moment of hesitation before you answer, you think, “Why couldn’t I have picked that Eggers book first out of my stack instead of The Lost Symbol?” And when you say no, and the gushing praise and verbose explanations about why you have to read that Eggers book starts forth, you don’t think until later of all the things you should have said to defend whatever book you were reading at the time. “I’ll get to it,” you promise to your surprised and insistent friend, when she’s paused for breath. “It’s just that you should see the huge stacks by my bed and I’m still trying to make it through Atlas Shrugged …”

Over the days and weeks and months, you may skip over that same book your friend insisted on again and again, in favor of that beloved (and yes, thrice-read) Austen book, or the newest Kinsella buried under Kafka and Maugham and Sedaris, until finally, after the sixth person in a month has given you the deepest look of horror when you tell them you haven’t read the latest Eggers, you pick up it up. Reading along, you start to have that same feeling as when you watch that much-anticipated movie for which you’ve seen the full ten-minute preview online—you feel … let down. All that hype has turned what probably is quite an exceptional book into something tired, cliché. Word of mouth does have its limits, after all.

On the other hand, there are those books and authors whom you may have heard mentioned once or twice, or perhaps you’ve never heard of them at all, until something prompts you to pick them up, and suddenly, the world of reading has meaning again.

Such a writer has Wallace Stegner been for me.

When I picked up Crossing to Safety in a lovingly worn, two-story used bookshop on the main drag in Mendocino, and the older gentleman proprietor grunted as he pecked the price and tax into an old calculator, saying, “This is my favorite Stegner,” I should have known. I should have bypassed the sights of the beautiful rugged northern California coast and run back to my hotel room, tucked myself into the easy chair by the window, and gobbled it up right then and there. As it is, it has taken me a year and three months to finally pick it out of the stack. And now … well, I feel like a teenage girl watching Twilight for the first time.

This book—and Stegner’s voice—has captured my mind, heart, and soul. Told as a memory of four friends in their twenties, it holds both personal appeal to me, as well as a deep admiration for the author’s depth of soul and humanity. I both want to read it as fast as I can and savor every paragraph, sentence, and image. Why am I only reading this lovely author now? Why have my eyes glazed past Angle of Repose on bookstore shelves at least a dozen times since I was a teenager, only to light on this lesser-known masterpiece now? As with any heartfelt experience with a book, it is difficult to explain, and I only know I will try my darndest to avoid telling people they should read it.

How about you? Have you been surprised lately by a book or author you have never read, or never even heard about until now? Feel free to share.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to get back to …

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